Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Psychology Behind Apple's Success

Believe it or not, psychologists can watch a 10 minute conversation between spouses and predict with a high degree of accuracy which couples will remain together. Or would you believe that adding a sprig of parsley to the apostrophe in a soup can's logo can compel taste-testers to use the term "fresh" in their comments? These studies and more are described in the book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell.

A couple of the stories in particular had me thinking about Apple's product lines, marketing, and psychology. Whether conscious of it or not, Steve Jobs's company does a great job of appealing to people's underlying decision-making factors in their corporate strategies. Blink illuminates some of these otherwise murky processes.

One counter-intuitive factor in decision-making is that more options does not mean greater sales. Most people would think that we would rather get exactly what we want rather than have our choices limited. However, a study by Sheena Iyengar described in Blink found just the opposite. She set up a stand selling jelly. When offered 24 flavor options, only 3% of customers made a purchase, whereas 30% of customers bought when given only six choices.

Apple follows this example in several ways. The iPod line has always been limited to three or four base models, each with only two or three capacity choices and up to five color choices. Each of these decisions has few enough options to be quite manageable. Similarly, while slightly more complicated, Apple hardware is divided into a few simple categories. There are laptops or desktops. Within each category there is a consumer-level machine and a professional model. For example, in laptops there is the MacBook and the MacBook Pro. They are named to easily distinguish the intended market. Finally, for each model there are usually three basic configurations. Advanced users can specify components more precisely, but the average consumer has only a few limited choices to make. As a final example, Apple has made a point of the confusion surrounding the numerous versions of Microsoft Vista as compared to their own latest release, OS X Leopard. Leopard comes in only one version, with all the options included.

The Aeron office chair.

On the other hand, some of Apple's choices butt up against another psychological propensity, fear of the unfamiliar. Jobs tends to take product design risks, keeping Apple on the cutting edge. An analogous situation is described in Blink with the creation of the now ubiquitous Aeron office chair. It was the first such product to incorporate many ergonomic advances. The back was designed to fit the contours of a person's body, smaller at the base and larger at the top-- the opposite of traditional chairs. The chosen material was a thin, breathable plastic stretched tight over the frame, no padding or leather as in most high-end office products. The design was rated by early users extremely high in comfort but remarkably low in aesthetics. It took quite a while for people to get used to the chair and appreciate it. As Gladwell writes, "The problem is that buried among the things that we hate is a class of products that are in that category only because they are weird. They make us nervous. They are sufficiently different that it takes us some time to understand that we actually like them."

Apple's iMac and the later Dell XPS One

Following the maxim, Think Different, Apple has not been afraid to create "weird" products. The original berry-colored iMacs, all-in-one computers, were extremely novel, and they did end up being liked by many people. The more recent LCD iMacs have set design standards copied by other companies. The Mac Cube, on the other hand, was never well-received, but its reincarnation a few years later as the Mac Mini has done quite well. Apple has also been first to dispense with older technologies. They stopped putting floppy drives in Macs while PC's continued to incorporate them for years. The recent MacBook Air, despite its high price tag, does not include any optical drive. It has been decried by many pundits for this fact, but sales have been extremely strong nonetheless. In each case it may have taken time for customers to adapt to these changes, but in most cases they eventually get entered into the collective culture as part of the standard, just as the Aeron is now a prototype for many office chairs.

The psychology of consumerism is a large and complex topic. Gladwell's book focuses more on how our snap judgments can be useful once we are trained at recognizing situations where the subconscious can lead us astray. An article in Time magazine, "The Why of Buy", further discusses the neuroscience of buying decisions. They conclude that 95% of consumer purchasing is decided subconsciously. Also, "brands are so powerful that we are sometimes more likely to buy something we identify with than something we like better or that is better for us." The Apple brand has certainly been successful at entrenching itself in consumers' psyches. Whether they are conscious of it or not, Apple has very adroitly navigated the complexities of marketing.

1 comment:

cerebritis said...

Hello the apple success is easy they make a really good product so that is why they had a great success.